What do you do when a stranger comes to call? Ignore the knock? Bolt the door? Invite her in? Make a feast? What if the person is not quite a stranger, but someone you’ve heard about, a person that your friend or family knows? What do you do when you notice someone new at work or school, on your street or in the grocery store, or at church? Do you have a sense that there is something you should do, but don’t for any number of reasons, or could do, if you had more clarity or direction? I find the story of Mary and Martha unsettling, perhaps because the narrator does not make it clear what the sisters are “supposed” to do.
Here’s what we know: after Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, he enters a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. Martha has a sister, named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet, and listened to what he was saying. In contrast to Mary’s stillness, Martha is distracted by her many tasks, and she comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” And not waiting for his response, Martha continues, “Tell her then to help me.” But instead of following her admonition and speaking to Mary, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, and there is need of only one thing (or a few, according to some translations.)” And Jesus says finally, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
To make sense of it, we should try to reclaim the strangeness of the story. In 1st century Israel, women don’t play the role of student sitting at the feet of the teacher. Nor do women ordinarily welcome men into their home and act as host. And it would be shameful to ask a visitor to intervene in a family squabble.
A couple of other things surprise me. We don’t know whether Martha and Mary live in the same house. So I wonder: does sharing a home (or school or church) with someone presume sharing the role and responsibility of host? And if Mary is a visitor, do different rules apply to her? Martha’s sister may connect to the stranger Jesus, then, because she is a guest, as well. And despite Martha’s frustration, what if Mary is waiting for Martha to ask her to help?
We are told that Mary listens. Does Martha? We do know that Martha is “worried and distracted,” and that her feelings are intense—the word translated as “distracted” literally means that she is “beside herself.” But it’s not clear what the “many things” are that trouble her, only that her legion is compared to the “few” or the “one” which is needed. Is Martha bothered by the work itself, or by Mary, or by the delusion that Jesus needs to talk with her sister for her and fix the problem? There is a chasm between the sisters that only coming near to each other can heal.
However one might identify with one or the other woman, or criticize them, both come to the living God and engage this stirring One intensely. Each does what hospitality demands: paying close attention to the guest and providing what the guest needs. So is sitting at Jesus’s feet really “better” than the kitchen tête-à-tête? Maybe the better part is for us to listen for God’s voice instead of talking about our sister! And maybe that will finally get us talking to each other.
Because of the placement of this story after the Good Samaritan, it’s hard not to hear in Mary and Martha another opportunity to redefine who the neighbor is, and again it’s not who we expect. It’s a woman; it’s someone on the margin; it’s a person that I don’t understand or agree with or think has anything to teach me. But if I listen to the other, if I give her the better part of my heart, then I will encounter the living God, and both of us will be a little bit more whole.
Every week, will you reach out to someone at Redeemer that you don’t know, and then follow up in a week or so? Thanks!